All posts made in Jul. 2003:

The quest to find the www's favourite colour: favcol dot com. Hey, why not.

Greg Egan is the coolest scifi author out there (even apart from the loads of short stories free online). He writes java applets too, and this one is genius -- play Quantum Soccer: "In the game of Quantum Soccer, the aim is to shape the wave function of a quantum-mechanical 'ball' so that the probability of it being inside one of the goals rises above a set threshold".

The Journey to Wild Divine is a Myst-like game that you play using biofeedback. Controlled sweat gland activity and heart rate is actually used for navigating through the game. "To succeed in the game, according to Whitehouse, players have to learn certain principles, which basically require what he calls an 'allowing attitude'--a kind of passive will. [...] In biofeedback terms, the game is set up so that players might actually have to raise either their sweat gland activity or heart rate in order to get through one particular barrier, while moving into a more balanced, or even calmer, state to successfully navigate another area. [...] 'At some point in the game, if a player has learned how to control their internal states to a degree, they can have an internal shift--something akin to an 'aha' experience, where they just know how to do things,' said Whitehouse, who particularly enjoys working in the area of optimal performance. 'The game actually begins to occur in their minds. For example, they might just automatically let the inhale and exhale become equal in their breathing and deepen it a little bit. This would result in their going into the desired pattern of increased heart rate variability. Or they might accomplish the same thing by connecting with positive emotions.'"

eyes that will not open wide enough/ have not the deepenough lungs for gasping. i wish i could do something worthy of this [---]. i can't speak it. the only way to do it justice is to speak it all, and it's being spoken all around us, already. tears, perhaps, or laughter. both. awe. there is nothing/ there is it all/ simultaneous. isness. thisness. here we are! can't you see? oh my.

Stupid beta! Got MMS and a camera on your phone? I'm trying to find out the www's favourite colour. Send photos of your favourite colour here. Usual warnings: The pictures and sender details are stored; the address might not work in a week's time.

Consider that light follows the path minimising travel distance through space, between two points A and B (a straight line, or curved by gravity). It's as though each possible path was identified, and the shortest actually used (a single virtual actualised). Now add to the gedankenexperiment a block of a special material, not on the direct path. This special material is something that bends space in as complex a manner as possible - maybe a metre cubed block of a foam of tiny black holes, that would do - and make the foam a three-dimensional fractal so finding the optimal path through it is really hard. Then do two things. Firstly, calculate the fraction of possible paths that would pass through the material, and secondly calculate how difficult all possible paths through the material are to compute (use some universal computing measure). Then let some light out at source A, and record what happens when it gets to destination B.

What might happen is that it takes a tiny, tiny time longer to reach B than when the block wasn't there. That tiny extra time is the measure of the raw computing power of the universe itself, how long it takes for the universe to compute the paths through the black hole foam cube and discover that none of them are shorter than the straight line. And possibly, just possibly what will happen is that the front of the beam of light will take longer but all subsequent light in the ray won't take longer at all because the path will already have been calculated, so the head of the beam will be slightly yet measurably brighter. That is, if the universe has also implemented caching.

Urban Bedtime Stories "is a live cable TV show in which the TV audience members and internet users become characters in the show's mise-en-scène. They talk with the TV characters and other audience members through internet chat within the context of the story -- the actors address audience members as character" (premiered late 2001).

Entertaining early (1995) take on the internet/cyberspace and it's metaphor of space/territory/place: Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet, Virtuality, and Postmodernity. A few points jumped out at me. That the screen is unbridgeable with the body, so the internet collapses into a single physical point, however the internet creates its own world with connections between computers, a virtual terrain that has no frontiers: what exists is what is already mapped. There's lots more.

Also, I liked this: "'Information' has become a term to describe movies on demand, electronic malls, and expanding numbers of television channels; the media is 'accelerating in a void' of the banal. Increasing sophistication in technology produces more convincing simulations of information and more convincing strategies of deterrence. The fascination of the depthless screen--'the superficial abyss'--keeps us firmly rooted. With a wealth of information, we have no time to realize that we have nothing to learn". The superficial abyss.

Whatever happened to serendipity? On moblogging (the intersection of people, place and information)... "Without wanting to take anything away from her, she was simply doing what just about any observant, curious human being equipped with this technology would get around to doing sooner or later. This is my house, this is my neighborhood, this is my best friend, this is where we hung out last night: this is, in short, any feature of my world that I find interesting or inspiring or worthy of comment". Some good uses, good challenges, and nice identification of weblog paraphernalia.

Understanding use through mythology: "user mythology is a set of received or generated knowledge based on the experiences of a user base. a user base can be one person or the entire user community of a product. users create stories about their experiences in the often inscrutable world of computers and the internet all the time. those stories are refined, reformed, and passed on in accordance with how well they explain what the computer is doing, and how best to handle it. for instance, a computer that is swapping is often perceived to be 'thinking very hard'. both novice and expert computer users, even those who know a computer does nothing close to the process of thought, will interpret a swapping or slowed computer as thinking very hard. this metaphor is so useful it often supplants known factual data- namely that computers don't think". Good!

As We May Communicate challenges the metaphor of the workspace (the desktop) as the way we work with computers: "Imagine that instead of seeing a quaint desktop when using a computer that we see a portal into a world of animate senders and receivers of information: avatars for agents, programs, operating systems, distributed systems, and, of course, other humans. Ideally, we could exchange and distribute information with a natural language system, handwriting recognition, or more traditional input systems. When we wish to gain information about a computer, software, or another person, we communicate directly with the representation for that object. [...] As in a conversation, we could be simply introduced to a communicative entity at first, but over time we could gradually be given a more complete picture of exactly what 'it' is and what "it" can do. Instead of overwhelming users with a dizzying array of unfamiliar features and commands, a communicative entity could gradually ease a user into a more comfortable relationship with itself".

In the communication space model, documents become collaborative artifacts created by users (who are human or software). Also touched on is the need for public and private selves. I'm not convinced, but it's good exercise.

Oh, I have a new Upsideclown up: What is real?

Creatures from primordial silicon (New Scientist). Using genetic algorithms and a field-programmable gate array (FPGAs are logic circuits that can have their logic rewritten on the fly), it turns out evolution doesn't stick to the binary system (high/low) that we use. I mean, of course, but better: When evolving a circuit to differentiate between two signals, instead of using a clock to time the frequencies, the circuit used a complex system of feedback loops (like nature). What's more: "That repertoire turns out to be more intriguing than Thompson could have imagined. Although the configuration program specified tasks for all 100 cells, it transpired that only 32 were essential to the circuit's operation. Thompson could bypass the other cells without affecting it. A further five cells appeared to serve no logical purpose at all-there was no route of connections by which they could influence the output. And yet if he disconnected them, the circuit stopped working. It appears that evolution made use of some physical property of these cells-possibly a capacitive effect or electromagnetic inductance-to influence a signal passing nearby".

Incidentally, the digital circuit abstraction layer isn't as solid as it looks. Analogue effects have to be carefully taken into account when designing and using chips. Read Ground Bounce (IEEE Computer Magazine).

Yesterday morning, hot sun and hot pavement, I found a dead bee. I can't remember the last time I saw a dead bee - not since I've lived in a city, I guess - and this one was still brightly coloured, fuzzy and fat. I poked it with a piece of leaf for a while. That knot of complexity! The desk my computer is on now looks vulgar in comparison, so vast, so selfish, squatting over a million bees-worth of space, and doing nothing: one piece of the desk is much like another, and the whole like any desk, anywhere. But this bee, white black and yellow, I bet every single element of it had purpose: every particle, every force, every relative position and potentiality of it, oh and more and wider than I have space here to say, all the way down to the substrate of the universe itself. Not like my desk, built on top of all these layers, in the highly stacked and abstracted world of people -- which is, in fact, just like London around me, there at the west end of Fleet Street, a human construction, a deeply nested virtual machine really, that's all it is -- there with our precarious artifact around me, I witnessed a bee, not built on top of reality but part of reality itself. Indivisible from it. A window to the true reality so far from me. "Auspicious event! Going to be a good day" I texted Es, excited. "Not for the bee" she replied. I'm not sure, it's still there, more real than any of us. Thank you, bee!

A few things to say:

Just as important (or more!) as the internals of the bee are its connections [they aren't 'connections' though] with the wider universe, its history, its species history and adaptations to bits [although there aren't really 'bits'] of the environment [although there isn't really an 'environment'], how it's used when it decomposes, the signs it is (its bee-ness) that are imitated by other things, the patterns it follows. And when I say 'purpose' I mean maximally used/intertwingled.

By virtual machines I mean that we've introduced attributes to the universe that aren't there: my desk has a 'whole', it is distinguished from other things. That bee isn't and can't be so divided. We've done this repetitively, and now we live in a world of calcified assumptions/expectations.

What's more, I'm not sure I can sufficiently emphasise the sheer lucidness of the moment: the hot stone pavement, the sun on my back, the leaf fragment between my fingers, the physics of the bee itself being moved by the leaf. All of this more concrete and real and completely there than anything else, and me there with it - in the thisness of now - as real as the single beat of a drum, anchoring the universe to a single here-moment, or as when, as a child, you dug and found, underneath the warm earth, cold dark soil on your fingers.

Good piece in the Guardian on radio drama, The best plays you've never seen. On the rapid turnaround... "This goes on day after day, week after week, in a range of styles that leaves television's one-track realism far behind". And Thorpe is right to complain that reviews often treat radio plays like blacked-out stage plays, although I wish he'd said more -- I'd be happy to read another article by him detailing what sort of language the medium actually deserves.

Here we are, here we are!, here we are.

Science historians ponder naming 'enemies' in science literature [via robotwisdom]. For example,

"The kind of rhetoric that is used in the context of invasive species is completely ghastly. No one thinks very much about what all the metaphors mean. Haven't species moved around the globe all the time? Isn't it a prime example of evolution at work when a 'invasive' species comes in and actually out-competes a so-called 'native' species? Isn't this the competition that we teach everyone about in introductory biology that leads to adaptation?" Laubichler said. "Yet the metaphors lead us to assume that this is 'unnatural.' This can easily turn into something that gets completely out of hand."

(Related thought: We use the word 'expect' for unconscious unexpectations, or rather, implicit understandings of the behaviour of things, even though we shouldn't: we don't 'expect' the sound from the radio to devolve into pack struggle, alpha phonemes dominating words, re-packing into different meanings as the constitution of the pack changes according to the echo pattern of the room. That's not an axis of variation. But whereas I positively expect to be hungry later (if I don't eat), I don't 'expect' in the same way the absence of all the constraints that make radio radio, and I don't have an 'expectation' of radio (expectation is too active), but I can recognise it when it's there. New word needed.)

Cyberspace as a paratactic aggregate:

So the virtual worlds constitute a strand of thought that stretches back through history, a mindset that produces and complexifies a whole series of worlds, the latest being cyberspace, and virtual meaning these aren't within the real world: A virtual world has to be brought into being by explicit statements (this means this, that means that), as with cyberspace which itself is an offshoot of cybernetics, and so the statements are cybernetic feedback loops: this means (read: causes) this, that means (read: causes) that. The driving force of virtual worlds is towards replicating the real world in a describable way, associating semantic handles with everything, and the power of the virtual world (in the current case: cyberspace, which is the internet and more) is that these handles are programmatically available - in the past, oral culture put handles on human nature; the great scientific models put handles on the physical universe - and the drive to do this [the continuing evolution because of incremental benefits] is called the semiotcracy. This however is also the weakness of the virtual world because the selection of handles is dependant on the worldview of its authors (so we have email addresses for individuals and not groups, not properly) which shapes the reality of people living within the world.

And people do live within the virtual worlds! or at least partially. Once the nest of statements grows beyond a certain complexity, individuals can no longer comprehend it logically, and so the structure of the brain itself, which has adapted to the physics of the real world (distance means dilution of causality, is one such adaption), is utilised: the design of the virtual world must now therefore take its clues from humanity's interfaces with the pre-existing universe, and build in equivalents. The virtual world may then re-merge with (deterritorialize back into) the real world.

Early virtual worlds: On the subject of Archaic art: "The picture becomes a list. Thus a charioteer standing in a carriage is shown as standing above the floor (which is presented in its fullest view) and unencumbered by the rails so that his feet, the floor, the rails can all be clearly seen. No trouble arises if we regard the painting as a visual catalogue of the parts of an event rather than as an illusary rendering of the event itself (no trouble arises when we say: his feet touched the floor which is rectangular, and he was surrounded by a railing...)" -- the picture is a series of statements: "We have what is called a paratactic aggregate: the elements of such an aggregate are all given equal importance, the only relation between them is sequential, there is no hierarchy, no part is being presented as being subordinate to and determined by others".

(Aside: If you think as semantic distance as the online equivalent as distance, and each statement building that world is therefore a difference, then "Distance is therefore a set of ordered differences, in other words, differences that are enveloped in one another in such a way that is it possible to judge which is larger or smaller, but not their exact magnitudes", which is from D&G's 'A Thousand Plateaus', and this also sounds like trails in Xanadu.)

Unlike present day art where it makes sense to ask about the almost accidental meaning behind choices, influences, this wasn't the case then: "Not every feature of an archaic list has representational value just as not every feature of a written sentence plays a role in articulating the content. This was overlooked by the Greeks who started inquiring into the reasons for the 'dignified postures' of Egyptian statues (already Plato commented on this). Such a question 'might have struck an Egyptian artist as it would strike us if someone inquired about the age or mood of the king on the chessboard'". (These quotes all from Paul Feyerband's 'Against Method'.)

It would not be possible now to make Archaic art. It would carry more signifiers. My implicit choices could be criticised; why had I chosen to make something that looked like Archaic art?; so on. This form of art [a virtual world] has been reabsorbed into the real world, and so it can have implicit qualities, widely dispersed associative meaning -- just like the real world in fact.

Cyberspace is still a paratactic aggregate. This is a bad thing -- this particular manifestation of the virtual worlds is now complex enough to shape thoughts, but tyrannised by the minority who are the only ones able able to state the propositions to shape it.

The real world at least is shaped democratically: Walking down the street I exist within a crowd. I cross the road to go to a coffee shop, a ripple moves through the crowd, it becomes marginally easier for others to cross at the same point as me. I have helped shape a social feature; this is extelligence. The storing of knowledge and tools in the environment (which in this case includes other people, society). On a grander scale, we vote with our feet (and wallets) at stores. We face away from people, stare at people, shape their personalities (and social position). Our every accidental movement and action influences reality. Contast this with the web: Aside from recommendations at Amazon and sites that monitor their traffic, the only way people affect the virtual world they live in is by creating new handles (new nouns), that is, URIs, that is: creating their own content. It's too explicit! Where is the implicit shaping?

Cyberspace is characterised by parataxis - defn: "The mere ranging of propositions one after another, without indicating their connection or interdependence; -- opposed to syntax" - and yes we're discovering the syntax (what if we could build cyberspace using the fuzzy statements of a pattern language?) gradually, but how much longer will we be building a world which continutes to exclude the vast majority of humanity, pretty much by design?

It's possible there's some trend in our virtual worlds: from the creation of a new medium as a paratactic aggregate, how long does it take for it to become part of the real world again, complete with the implicit nothing-is-wasted qualities of the universe? Is this period decreasing? How long did art take, how long did other media take, and by extrapolating this line, can we tell how long before cyberspace becomes a fair place to live?

(Three incidentals. 1. The pyramids were a virtual world, a society facing towards constructing their cyberspace of very nearly just a single statement: Here we are. (The most basic social transaction: I'm OK, You're OK.) 2. Virtual worlds are often artifacts, things that enter time, after-images of humanity, and it's unfair that the virtual world we're building now is preventing such a large number from contributing to the pyramids of our age. 3. From Feyeraband again, a warning against taking abstracted thought too far: "Many years later Galileo cautioned against this way of reasoning: rainbows, he said, cannot be caught by triangulation".)

Funky/not-funky RSS. It doesn't seem wise to put in place a social pressure to remove evolvability from the living RSS spec. A reason additions haven't taken off so far is that extra elements have only been used for simple metadata. Whereas, if modules (in either RSS 1.0 or 2.0) were used to structure previously unstructured data, say: including the comments or Trackbacks information in XML rather than just in the description tag somewhere; breaking out the hyperlinks embedded in the description so it's simple XML parsing rather than hard HTML parsing to figure out what the post is linking to; any other supplementary information that it doesn't make sense to include as the post itself but could be interesting not just to aggregators but other RSS consumers (lowering the bar for Technorati-a-likes); a link to an RSS feed of all posts in that category, that can be spidered; experimental ways of addressing posts-in-RSS rather than in HTML; [more ideas here]. If a tool provider who constituted a significant portion of the market were to add useful, structured data to RSS feeds as a matter of course, properly modularised of course, how long would it be before consuming applications began to take advantage of it? Aggregator authors want to make cool reading environments, not get involved in politics.

(If these views weren't about RSS, they could be about Echo, it doesn't matter. An ecology in which the format can evolve is key. Besides, I've got more to say about the software architecture.)

(Structuring previously unstructured data is equivalent to putting handles on previously unhandled things, or making an address space for things that never used to have URIs. It's the grand sweep of virtual worlds through the ages, from the beginning of literature culture -- oh, and earlier still, rhymes and verbal patterns to handle concepts, to get around the complexity exchange limit. It's the big tide, the semiotcracy we're living in. Whether or not it's obvious how in an individual case it could be useful, it's how to allow unintended consequences, how to even talk about things. If something doesn't exist in an address space, it's like speaking without nouns [and there's a whole other story here, about the internet class system and who can and who cannot create those nouns, the URIs].)

(some notes start)

  1. distance is the half-life of causality
  2. what i mean is/
    where we are going with this is
  3. there are certain properties to the universe, certain aspects of the isness, that we could call "ways it operates". distance is one
  4. actually, it's the isness+our_physics
  5. anyway
  6. we relate to these things in our own way
  7. [implicature]
  8. and extract hints and useful information,
  9. so
  10. over all those 100000s years before the holocene
  11. distance => transformations get diluted && transformations getting diluted => distance
  12. it goes both ways!
  14. so when an artifact passes a certain level of complexity
  15. [similar to when a machine passes a certain level of complexity and the mind just starts treating it as another person]
  16. then we start treating things like the universe
  17. and this is why we have to understand what the brain expects from the universe (distance) and how to build that in (to our virtual worlds) and what this means.
  • the continuous strand of reality we call the virtual world is anything that exists above this level of complexity, anything that is constructed from statements, and the people who work with/in it.
  • we shape the real world by extelligence the whole time, this is another thing that is built in. however this is not built into cyberspace so it is being shaped only by certain people who are making it awful in the hinternet. it's like a fourier transform: adding together lots of ways to make a shape within certain bounds -- but what happens outside those bounds? anything. this is a problem with the virtual world.
  • the pyramids were virtual worlds. they were our cyberspace.
  • a five thousand year vapour trail of humanity.

(some notes end)